Nathan's column: Attack of the robot reportersAccording to the current issue of Wired magazine, there are two competing companies working to create robots that can do our jobs. They’ve already got a decent start. One company, called Narrative Science, already produces finance-business articles run on the website.
By: Nathan Hansen, Rosemount Town Pages
There are a lot of challenges for newspaper employees these day. Subscriptions are declining as people get used to reading their news online for free. Advertising dollars have dwindled as other businesses suffer in a weak economy. And it’s almost impossible to find a good fedora with one of those press cards stuck in the brim.
It’s a lot to think about, and now it appears there’s another concern to add to the list. According to the current issue of Wired magazine, there are two competing companies working to create robots that can do our jobs.
They’ve already got a decent start. One company, called Narrative Science, already produces finance-business articles run on the website of the magazine Forbes and sports stories published on the site of the Big Ten Network -- official motto, “The Only Place Where Counting to Ten Means You Have to Take Off Your Shoes.”
Those are the kinds of stories the robots are best at for the moment. They excel at processing numbers -- financial reports, batting averages -- and turning out stories that use phrases like, “Stepped to the dish,” or “He erased that shot like a magnet on a hard drive.” Computers may be getting smarter, but they still have a pretty limited frame of reference.
They struggle in other areas. They are not good at adding human emotion to their stories, though that shouldn’t be a surprise. If they can’t make Data have emotions on Star Trek: The Next Generation, how can we expect feelings from our laptops?
The robots can’t conduct interviews, either. Though that’s mostly because nobody will return a voicemail from a caller that sounds like HAL from 2001. Siri is for answering questions, not asking them.
The machines are branching out, though. They’ve started generating stories about restaurants.To be fair, that’s another situation where “stepped to the dish” is a useful turn of phrase. Other sports terms are, of course, less useful. Particularly useless for restaurant-reviewing robots: “We’re gonna shock the world!” and, particularly, “It’s gut-check time.”
“Grand slam” could be useful, but only in the very specific situations when the computer is reviewing a Denny’s.
It’s hard to know where this is all headed. The people in charge of Narrative Science say their goal is not to put flesh-and-blood reporters out of business. They want to cover the Little League games, aided by parents with stat-compiling smartphone apps, that currently go uncovered by reporters with pulses. They see a future where humans and computers could work together, the computer crunching numbers while the addresses the human element of the story and, presumably, hits print.
It could be like a buddy movie, where the computer and the human make wisecracks, bicker but ultimately learn to get along. All while the computer figures out the most efficient way to build an army of Terminators.
Besides, there will always be things I can do that no robot can replicate. I bet I take better pictures than a computer, which can really only photograph the cubicle walls around it. And a soulless bunch of silicon chips could never come up with that counting to 10 joke from earlier, because, you know, no feet.
School board meetings, on the other hand, the computer is welcome to take.